A Message From Our Rabbi
I am constantly amazed by this congregation. Not simply or even primarily because of the institution, but because of the outstanding people that make up this congregation and the unbelievable change agents and advocates they are throughout our city. All of you are literally responsible for enriching the lives of tens of thousands of people. For example, even just within the Jewish community-
The past, present, and incoming board chairs of Jewish Federation as well as its CEO are members. The chair of the board and Head of School at Ottawa Jewish Community School, the Director and board chair at Ottawa Talmud Torah, and the Director of Camp B’nai Brith are here. The Chair of Jewish Family Services’ board as well as the board of Tamir are members. And these are but a few of the scores of people who make a difference in our community. And this has always been so.
In 1934, a special meeting was called, during which Caspar Caplan, then acting chairman of the Vaad HaKashruth and president of Adath Jeshurun, presented his idea to create the Va’ad Ha’ir that would work towards the unification of the Jewish community in Ottawa. Even before this meeting, Adath Jeshurun and Agudath Achim, the two synagogues that would eventually combine to become Beth Shalom, were fully supportive of this project. Following the meeting, the objective was to gain the support of Machzikei Hadas and B’nai Jacob as well. Our synagogues and our lay leaders are literally responsible for creating a shared Jewish community in Ottawa. Calling upon everyone, as Caspar Caplan said, “to overlook his individual tastes at times and work in harmony with all the others towards the betterment of the community.”
Some years later, Agudath Israel realized that the Jewish community needed to be served outside of traditional boundaries and began a west end shul. Not only did this synagogue bring Judaism to the west end, it also brought Conservative Judaism to Ottawa. Fighting against the entrenched norms of the time to bring a new and important perspective to Jewish life in our city.
It was almost exclusively members of this congregation who were the forces behind the creation of the Jewish community campus, including OJCS, the JCC, Hillel Lodge, as well as being among the founders of Tamir and the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank.
These are just a few of the amazing accomplishments that members of our congregation have initiated within our community. I am sure, I could go on for hours regarding the hard work and determination that specifically the members of first Adath Jeshurun (King Edward St), Agudath Achim (Rideau St.), B’nai Jacob (James St.), and then Agudath Israel and Beth Shalom, and now Kehillat Beth Israel have brought to both the Ottawa Jewish community as well as the community at large. It’s in our DNA to, “See a need, fill a need” and to support those in our community who most require it. It’s just what our people do. We want to help and to do our part to engage and assist as many as we possibly can.
Yet, while our congregation’s membership has been bringing about Jewish innovation and enriching the lives of the Jewish community, the synagogue itself was not. While our members and even to a certain extent our synagogue was supportive of the larger Jewish community, our institutional mandate was not communally minded. That is likely because the current model that almost every synagogue employs, dates all the way back to just before the Second World War and wasn’t designed to meet communal needs. It was created, much like country clubs and gyms, to sell memberships and then provide services to those members. And for a long time, that model worked because everyone just joined synagogues. It was simply what one did.
But our Jewish world is changing. Younger people are less and less likely to join synagogues, not because they don’t want the synagogue’s offerings, but because they are simply less likely to join any institution. Golf clubs and gyms are navigating the same reality.
Additionally, the long-standing synagogue model only worked if people didn’t participate. Gyms are built based upon the principle that people will join but not come. If they did, they wouldn’t have sufficient equipment or space. Similarly, a traditional synagogue could never work if everyone who was a member came to everything the congregation did. Think of the Kiddush costs alone! This is the way that all membership based institutions work. But how can any self-respecting synagogue still maintain a model that aspires towards membership rather than engagement? We should be aspiring towards maximum participation, not increased dues payment. The next generation of Judaism requires the next generation of synagogue. One that aspires to optimal engagement and to inspire as many people as possible.
Three years ago, we came together and created an entity called “The New Shul.” The leaders of those congregations knew that as the city and Jewish life changed, a new shul was necessary to achieve optimal success. Just as we have done with so many other institutions, our membership knew that their synagogue had a role to play in providing a centrist, meaningful, and inclusive approach to Jewish life in our city and, to make that possible, we needed to amalgamate. That New Shul, now Kehillat Beth Israel, was created to once again, as our parents before us, meet the unique and changing needs of our Jewish world. And so, our synagogue came into existence with a responsibility to serve, but without a clear mandate. We knew we needed a breath of new life in the synagogue and within the community at large, but did not yet know how to actualize it. That changes tonight.
As Helen mentioned before, I am proud to announce tonight, the launching of – the Building Our Future Congregational Campaign – towards the creation of an exciting, innovative, and inspiring approach to Jewish life here in Ottawa. This is not singularly or even primarily a building campaign. This campaign is designed to assure that this synagogue will be at the forefront of Jewish life not only here in Ottawa, but serve as a flagship institution for the Conservative movement.
The campaign’s name, Building Our Future, was chosen because each of the words represents a core component of our effort. As part of this campaign, we will be Building, revitalizing our physical structure, becoming a 21st century facility. We will focus on “our” community and how we can reach and support as much of our community as possible. And finally, we will be looking to the future, assuring the viability of our congregation for generations to come. All of which is to be accomplished by 2020.
As we look at each component of the campaign, let me begin in the middle, because it is the essence of our campaign. While the word Our, could be seen as a placeholder to carry us from building to future, it is, in fact, the most crucial component of the campaign.
Two communities came together to create Kehillat Beth Israel. This campaign is about bringing legacy Agudath, legacy CBSO, and people who have only ever know Kehillat Beth Israel together to fully actualize our development as a new shul with an entirely new approach to Jewish life and living. This is “Our” shul, each and every one of us, so any future success that we have will be dependent upon each and every one of us coming together in shared purpose, proud of where we came from and excited for what we can become.
But the “Our” is not only about uniting our synagogue, but also about our role in the larger community as well. The KBI of 2020, will determine success differently. Rather than a member service institution that succeeds by gaining more memberships, we will determine success by how many people we are able to serve, as well as the depth of that engagement. We do not want to be a gym that people join but do not use, we want to be a spiritual home that provides meaningful Jewish experiences to thousands of Jewish Ottawans and their families. There are so many people who do not avail themselves of our program offerings because they think that all we care about is their membership. By changing the paradigm from membership to engagement, our inspiring approach to Jewish life will have the opportunity to permeate more deeply within the larger community. We will share a joy and love for Judaism with everyone in our community and empower and inspire them to bring that Jewish life home.
To accomplish this objective, we will need to focus on certain core areas of Jewish life that we are uniquely capable of providing. This precision will allow us to provide not only the best content to our congregation, but also clarify our mission and our role within the larger community. A synagogue cannot simply be in the business of being in business. We need a clear mission and vision to guide our work for the years to come. I propose we focus on the following 4 areas that we have a unique ability to provide:
1-Providing meaningful, egalitarian prayer experiences every day of the week.
2-Supporting families through the Jewish lifecycle
3-Ensuring that substantive Jewish learning is a lifelong endeavor
4-Bringing the community together in shared purpose.
The first area of focus is being a centre for people’s prayer lives. Whether due to geography, timing, or our approach to religious life, members of nearly every congregation in Ottawa, as well as many who are not members of any synagogue, avail themselves of our services. We too often take for granted the fact that we are the only place in Ottawa where a woman can recite Kaddish for a loved one as a full participant in the minyan every day of the week. We are the only congregation where no matter the day, a person can pray together with all the people closest to them. This is already an area of synagogue life where we truly are representing the value of “our.” Everyone is welcome in our minyanim, member or not. We only wish to provide a meaningful prayer experience for whomever may enter.
Additionally, we are the only congregation in Ottawa with a full time cantor. The ability to add a professional’s voice to our services is something that one can only get at this shul and that we have already seen the benefit of this High Holy Day season. By offering the traditional liturgy led by a cantor, as well as opportunities for learners’ services and family services, we will offer not only the best Shabbat and holiday service in this city, but also more different opportunities for spiritual engagement than anywhere else.
As part of our 2020 plan, we will work even harder to ensure that a minyan is present on a daily basis for all services and continue to explore new ways to connect people to their God and to themselves. We will explore alternate modes of religious expression, as well as offer services throughout the city geared towards different geographical locations, age groups, and spiritual needs.
The second focus area of KBI 2020 is supporting families through the Jewish lifecycle. Besides High holy day services, the most common time that one may interact with one’s synagogue and one’s clergy is around the Jewish lifecycle. My senior colleague in Atlanta used to say that a rabbi sees a person on their 5 best and their 5 worst days. It is our responsibility to guide and support our community from cradle to grave. From L’Mazel Tov pre-baby classes to support navigating a painful loss. Working with children as they become adults and individuals as they become a couple.
Almost weekly, there is someone we encounter who has a need within the lifecycle that is not a member of our congregation. For example, a person calls to tell me that their father is in Hillel Lodge but all of the children live out of town. He isn’t a member, but would really appreciate visits from a rabbi. Do I use my time to visit? What about a former member who is having difficulty suffering through a divorce? Do I spend an afternoon supporting them? And then there is the person who wishes to convert but will be moving elsewhere in a year, should I work with them on conversion even if they will never become a member?
Knowing our community and our values, of course the answer is yes to all three. It is our duty and responsibility to be there for everyone who is in need. At the Seder, we recite, let all who are hungry come and eat. The Kehillat Beth Israel of 2020 will say let all who thirst for meaning in their lives, come find it with us. Let all who are hungry for Jewish learning, come and participate. That is what it means to see the whole community’s needs through the totality of the lifecycle.
The third focus area for the synagogue will be ensuring that substantive Jewish learning is available as a lifelong endeavor. Once again, inspired by our value of celebrating our traditions, while living within a changing world, we will be tasked with assuring that there is meaningful, egalitarian, and non-judgmental learning opportunities in Ottawa. We are commanded to love God with our hearts and with our heads and the pinnacle of Jewish learning stimulates our brains while inspiring our hearts. This is what our approach to Jewish learning is all about.
Among the ways that this task will be accomplished is by providing opportunities for Jewish familial learning that can happen within the home. Attending a full time community Jewish school may provide the richest education and we are committed to supporting OJCS and Ganon in their continued success. But for many reasons, a full time program will not work for all families, so we will also continue to partner with Ottawa Talmud Torah and assist them in their curricular development so that there will also be a supplementary school that represents our values. Yet a huge percentage of Jewish Ottawa does not attend any form of formal Jewish education. There is a massive hole to be filled in providing more attainable Jewish educational offerings for those families. We will develop an educational program that can be done in people’s homes either with a single family or in small groups. This will allow us to reach scores of Jews for whom Jewish education is not currently being provided.
But Jewish learning does not end with childhood. For the last two years, I have run a class called Jew U at Hillel Ottawa. After selecting the best and brightest from a group of close to 50 applicants, more than 20 young men and women from all across the religious spectrum participated as we encouraged each of them to find his/her own unique religious path. While all of the participants have found an enriched Jewish life, we have seen the benefits of that class here at KBI as well. 1 of the Jewish U participants is studying for conversion with Rabbi Zuker, another has joined the synagogue, and a third is now serving as our Youth Advisor.
Additionally, we are offering a myriad of classes this year including an introduction to Hebrew language, teaching people how to lead services, and running classes for certain demographic groups like young adults and parents. In all of these courses, the objective is to increase learning rather than to increase foot traffic in the building. The KBI of 2020 will reach farther and assure that our approach to Jewish life and living is manifest in learning opportunities that permeate throughout the city. Assuring that from early childhood to senior facilities, opportunities for centrist Jewish learning is present.
The final focus area will be bringing the community together in shared purpose. In many of our community’s rabbinic meetings, my unofficial job is to be the rabbinic translator. The rabbis to the Right of me do not understand the needs of those to the Left of me and those to the Left of me have a similar problem with those to the Right. So, I spend all of my speaking time trying to explain what each is saying to the other, trying to find common ground and opportunities for true collaboration. We will continue to be hosts to events for Federation like Choices and for annual meetings for JFS and Tamir. We will continue to be a place in which 2 Orthodox High Schools (Machon Sarah and Ottawa Torah Institute) are housed, in addition to a non-denominational religious school and joint programming between synagogues. It is our responsibility as the religious centre of Ottawa to serve as a bridge and unite the community whenever it is possible.
We will also take this value of community collaboration one step farther. Just because someone avails themselves of one of our adult learning programs, or a pre-baby class, or comes to minyan, does not mean that we are the right synagogue for all of their religious needs. If that individual does not want an egalitarian environment, we will not be able to be the place for them for the High Holy Days. If a person is Jewish and marrying someone of another faith, our clergy cannot perform that wedding. Being truly community minded also means helping people to find where they will feel most comfortable, even when it is not with us. That doesn’t preclude his/her participation in a Hebrew class or community Havdalah, but it does mean that we will be living our values by directing them to the place where they will feel most comfortable praying. That’s what it means to be invested in a person’s Jewish growth, rather than their membership.
At its core, the “Our” in Building Our Future is about assuring that there will no longer be an us and them; a member and a non-member. Our mandate will be to engage and inspire all who come within our orbit. Measuring success by Jewish experiences and engagements and expanding our reach to meet the needs of hundreds within our city who do not yet have a spiritual home.
But in order to accomplish this objective, we will need your support and your buy in and that is where both Building and Future come in. Our building is old and in need of repair. We spend more than $100,000 annually on building maintenance, let alone the need for a new roof and more than half a million dollars’ worth of structural repairs and mechanical replacements that are required.
That is why we plan to begin our work on this building by 2020. If we are spending our money on building repairs, we aren’t spending it on people and on programs. If our space spreads the staff throughout the building, they cannot be collaborating on important congregational projects.
Our plan is to refresh our sanctuary and social hall, making them entirely accessible to all, lighter and brighter, with flexibility for optimal usage. We will be redesigning our office suite to assure greater collaboration between staff. We will refinish the bathrooms and bring the building up to code for the 21st century. We will again have a building worthy of this congregation and with it, the funds not only for its maintenance, but for increased communal service.
With a new approach and the appropriate amount of new construction, this new shul will be a beacon of what Jewish life can be throughout North America and it will carry us forward for the next 50 years.
But in order to make this future possible, we will be calling on each and every one of you to support this endeavor with your time, your talents, and yes, your treasure. In the coming months, there will be opportunities to support all three pillars of the project, making pledges towards the building, towards funding communal projects, and by funding the congregational endowment, which is the best way to assure that this synagogue will be able to maintain its vibrancy and vitality in the long haul.
And while the time for the financial campaign will come, for now, we are asking you for perhaps the most important resource you possess, your support. We want to be a synagogue you are proud to be a part of. We want you to believe that more is possible for our city and that our shul is the place that can make it happen. And we want you to be inspired by this vision for our future, so that you will volunteer to help to us get there. We have always had community minded congregants and this will now become a congregation modeled after its membership, invested in the religious, spiritual, and educational growth of our entire community.
Author Frank O’Connor wrote about how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to a brick wall that seemed too high to cross, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.
Tonight, we toss our Kippot over the wall of the status quo. By announcing that the KBI of 2020 will have a new building and a new approach to synagogue life, we now have no choice but to bring it to fruition.
When you leave services this evening, you will see a coming attractions poster, including a first glance at the new sanctuary that we hope to build together. If the vision for our future presented tonight speaks to you, please speak to Helen, Rena, or me in the coming days. We are ready to get to work.
The only thing brighter than our past is our future. We will need each and every one of you participating in this reinvigoration of our community. And I know you will. And the reason why I know you will is because you always have. It’s just what we do. Building Our community and our Future together.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah, May we all be inscribed for a sweet, happy, healthy, and successful new year.